George Paxton is a carver of funeral stones. Being a decent man George needs to ensure that his daughter is safe in a world of nuclear proliferation and wants to buy her a Scopas anti radiation suit. As George’s wife has just been fired from her job at a pet shop for ‘blowing up’ a tarantula, the cost has become prohibitive.
George is then approached by an old woman whom he assumes at first to be a ghost. She sends him off to meet with a Mad Hatter character who sells him a golden Scopas suit but also makes him sign a document which implicates him in starting World War III. World War III duly begins as George is travelling home.
And thus begins this peculiar and very disjointed novel.
Whether or not it is SF at all is debatable but immaterial. I would term it a political fantasy, since some of the science involved, such as The Mad Hatter’s human automata is either dubious or completely unfeasible.
It bears comparison with other novels which feature grotesques and caricatures such as ‘Roderick‘ and Richard Cowper’s ‘Profundis‘ but quite unfavourably I am afraid.
‘Profundis’ – another satire based on characters in a submarine in a post-apocalyptic world – was a far tighter, more structured work, with far less main characters, all of whom had a depth of character.
Morrow’s novel, to its detriment – seems to pay little attention to characterisation, apart from occasionally infodumping the history of his characters’ lives in one way or another.
There are also too many concepts to deal with, one of them being ‘the unadmitted’, a horde of black-blooded potential people who never actually existed, but have invaded our world because of some fissure in reality that the nuclear exchange created.
There is no real reason why Morrow could not have simply had survivors of the war take their place, since the role of the unadmitted is simply to put Paxton on trial and sentence him to death. Their presence is both unnecessary and confusing.
And the structure of the novel could have done with some work. There is a charming introductory section featuring Nostradamus who could, it appears, very accurately predict the future and had Leonardo da Vinci paint a series of scenes of George’s life and consequently the end of human existence on magic lantern glass plates.
Nostradamus appears again once during the novel for no good reason and again at the end in a closing scene. It’s not hard to determine why the Nostradamus scenes work so well and the rest of them don’t since Nostradamus is established quite elegantly and efficiently with a personality in an all too brief number of pages. We could really have done with far more since Morrow seems to have padded the remainder with reams of unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent text, space which could have been better-employed on furthering the narrative and exploring some actual characterisation.
There is also the seemingly interminable trial of George and his so-called co-conspirators which almost had me wishing for nuclear destruction to arrive and put an end to my torture.
Maybe it’s the US sense of humour (although I suspect not) but I really must be missing something since this is published in the prestigious Gollancz SF masterworks series and praised by such luminaries as Brian Aldiss and Justina Robson. I can’t presume to fault their judgment, but I can’t find it within me to agree with them.
This is the way the book ends… with a whimper from me, praying to the Great Mythical Being that there isn’t a sequel.
I suspect that Engine Summer was, for its time, quite a revolutionary piece of work. It bears comparison with later works such as Gene Wolfe’s ‘Book of The New Sun‘ and Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker‘ both of which it predates only by a year.
This is a novel set in a US a thousand years after some unspecified apocalypse. Earth at that time was technologically advanced with – it is suggested – AIs and the capability of digitising one’s consciousness. Scoutships had been sent to the stars, some of which had returned with cargo.
Our main character, Rush Who Speaks, lives in Little Belaire, the interior of a huge plant that sprouted from a seed brought back from another star.
There is an element of fantasy, or at least Extreme Romanticism here, although Crowley does not take it to the level of Wolfe. Crowley manages to justify his fairytale style by presenting the narrative through the eyes of young Rush, who is telling his tale to an unknown listener. In this sense it is a very clever novel since the only view of this world is through a growing boy’s eyes. He describes what he sees and encounters, some of which may be familiar to us and some of which may be a product of a later technological period.
Crowley indulges himself in some linguistic conceits here and there where the language has become corrupted and phrases develop alternate spellings. It was only when I had finished this book and completed my notes about it that I read another review which revealed that the title itself was a linguistic conceit, and is a corruption of Indian Summer, which becomes Injun Summer in some parts of the US and is translated here into Engine Summer.
This is, it seems, an idyllic time for Humanity. There are no incidents of violence (although the men of another tribe do initially discuss killing Rush when they first meet him). Rush never has to go hungry in Little Belaire. Nevertheless he is curious and restless; curious about the tales he has heard of saints and flying cities where angels live.
Some time back his friend, a girl called Once a Day. had left with another tribe calling themselves Dr Boots’ List. Rush misses her and hopes he can one day bring her back, along with ancient treasures for Little Belaire.
Rather like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Rush sets out on a journey across a post-apocalyptic USA, meeting a selection of diverse characters until he reaches his own ‘Emerald City’.
For a while he lives in a treehouse with a saint called Blink. Blink can read but has little conception of the nature of the literature he has collected.
‘This? This is my crostic-words. Look’
On the table where the morning sun could light it lay a thin sheet of glass. Below it was a paper, covered minutely with what I knew was printing; this took up most of the paper, except for one block, a box divided into smaller boxes, some black and some white. On the glass that covered the paper, Blink had made tiny black marks – letters, he called them – over the white boxes.
The paper was crumbled and yellow, and over a part of it a brown stain ran.
‘When I was a boy in Little Belaire,’ he said, bending over it and brushing away a spider that sat like a letter above one white box, ‘I found this paper in a chest of Bones cord’s. Nobody, though, could tell me what it was, what the story was. One gossip said she thought it was a puzzle, you know, like St Gene’s puzzles but different. Another said it was a game, like Rings, but different. Now, I wouldn’t say that it was only for this that I left Belaire to wander, but I thought I’d find out how it was a puzzle or a game, and how to solve it or play it. And I did, mostly, though that was sixty years ago, and it’s not finished yet.’
Having found the camp of Dr Boots List, where the tribe live in harmony with genetically engineered giant cats, and being reunited briefly with Once a Day, Rush moves on.
It is perhaps stretching credulity a little that, with the help of another eccentric denizen of this future US, Rush discovers one of the lost treasures of the Saints for which he has been searching
I can not discuss much that happens beyond this point without perhaps ruining the experience for those who have not yet read this complex and original novel.
It is poetic, beautiful and perhaps teaches us more than anything else that to live in Paradise we need also to live in ignorance.
One of a quartet of books which seem to reflect the Alchemical elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, this being the Water section.
In a near future Earth, solar flares have set a process of extreme climate change in motion which has resulted in the sea level rising and displaced silt forming new and unpredictable land masses. Lagoons are formed where the upper parts of hotels and office buildings rise from the waters.
Kerans is part of a scientific team studying the ecological effects, since animal and plant life appear to have been forced into a rapid phase of devolution, reverting to forms common in the Triassic. Reptiles such as iguanas, alligators and monitor lizards are particularly prevalent, and seem to have displaced humanity to become, like their dinosaur ancestors, masters of the world.
Kerans has set up camp in one of the upper floors of the Ritz hotel, as has the enigmatic Beatrice who spends her days devolving into the persona of a former guest.
Indeed, devolution is the major theme here, since Humanity is also being affected, psyches accessing the race memory of an ancient age and drawn inexplicably to the South and the murderous heat.
This is Ballard at the start of his writing career, finding his feet and already displaying many of the hallmarks of his later work.
Already Ballard’s characters are intriguing and complex with motives that are difficult to determine. Kerans from the outset is affected by the devolutionary malaise that has changed many people and progresses through the narrative, his ancient race memory taking him back to the conscious state of the Triassic era.
Kerans colleague, Dr Bodkin, has been charged with investigating and monitoring this condition, although he himself seems more fascinated with the nature of the phenomenon than in seeking a means to cure it.
Conflict arrives in the form of Strangman, a peculiar almost vaudevillian character, who brings with him a team of black followers, and who appears to have the power to control the monstrous alligators who have thrived in this new world of steaming heat, jungles and lagoons.
Apart from Kerans and Strangman vying for the attention of Beatrice Dahl, a contest which appears to have motives other than a sexual one, Strangman hosts an evening on his ship, exhibiting paintings and other memorabilia which he has rescued from the flood and promising a surprise.
At the conclusion of the evening Strangman smugly reveals that pumping machines have been draining the local lagoon, slowly revealing the silt-covered buildings and streets which had been previously submerged. This has a marked effect on Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin who are horrified by the intrusion of the human world they had abandoned.
It is a flashpoint which appears to polarise the affected and the non-affected, forcing them into a fight for the survival of their states of mind.
Ballard’s work often examines the nature or the effects of time, and here it is a central theme. In other work and short stories we find him referring to time either directly or obliquely near the start of the story or chapter.
Chapter One – ‘Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperm…’
Chapter Nine – ‘ During the next two weeks, as the southern horizon became increasingly darkened…
Chapter Eleven – ‘ Half an hour later, Beatrice, Kerans and Dr Bodkin were able to walk out into the streets.’
Chapter Thirteen – ‘By eight o’clock the next morning Riggs had stabilised the situation and was able to see Kerans informally.’
These are random samples but the pattern is there. It’s not clear if this is merely a feature of Ballard’s writing style or whether the constant references to time hold a deeper meaning for him, as this is apparent in other works.
Cousins Len and Esau Coulter are two young boys living in a family community in a post-nuclear war US. The States has sunk to the point where a theocracy has taken over, opposed to the scientific excesses of the past and with a strict ruling that communities can not hold more than a thousand people.
Len and Esau however, fueled by their semi-senile grandmother’s tales of prewar cities and glamour, yearn to learn more. They have also been infected with tales of a forbidden town, Bartorstown, where people still live as they did before the bombs fell.
Comparisons can be drawn between this and John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ where, in a post-nuclear Canada, a group of telepaths have to hide their true nature from their Christian fundamentalist community. Both novels feature a Christianity adapted for circumstances, and both feature young people desperate to escape the straitjacket of their lives.
Perhaps wisely, Brackett chose to avoid the SF clichés of mutations and consequent psychic powers and focus on the question that Len has to ask himself which is, put bluntly ‘Is it better to live in ignorance and be happy, or be knowledgeable and depressed?’
Ultimately, what is learned can not be unlearned, as is reiterated to Len in various ways by his father, by the mysterious Mr Hostetter, and by a pastor with whom Len was lodging.
Brackett has, quite elegantly, taken the national paranoia of the time with its fear of communists-among-us and nuclear destruction and converted it to a fear of knowledge itself. The ‘aliens-among-us’ who, in other works of the time such as The Puppet Masters, are a metaphor for un-American outside influences are replaced here by the people of Bartorstown; ordinary humans who have a deal more knowledge than the rest of the country and no doubt practise forbidden science.
In one of the early sections, the boys sneak away from their Amish-esque village to visit a fair. It is a turning point in their lives as they witness a preacher rousing a congregation against the ideals of Bartorstown. A man is pointed out, denounced and duly stoned to death.
Because Brackett avoids proselytising from either viewpoint and concentrates on letting her characters express themselves within this strange world it becomes a work far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about people, society, happiness and the perennial battle between technology and religion. It’s also one of the finest novels about the best and the worst of America that one is likely to read.
‘DAWN OF A NEW DOOMSDAY
It was in the light of the swift star ‘God’s Eye’ – said to have been thrown aloft by the Ancients before the Desolation – that Beatra was captured by raiders from under the Earth.
Armed with only a psi-kinetic sand-sword and a Dire Wolf’s eyes, Jeremy Wolfhead followed, and found a strange city ruled by the descendants of an ancient government that had escaped the Desolation – a city that was preparing to emerge and bring to Earth a second, even more horrible, Doomsday!’
Blurb from the 1978 Berkley paperback edition
Jeremy Wolfhead lives with his grandfather in a Post Apocalyptic America, three thousand years after an atomic war. Life is good for Jeremy. He lives in a large house with his grandfather and his beautiful wife, Beatra. One morning the couple rise early to see the Gods Eye which we realise is the light of a satellite which orbits the earth.
However, a group of pale-skinned strangers appear and Jeremy’s dog, Goro, is killed, his wife kidnapped and Jeremy himself knocked unconscious.
He awakens under the care of a quasi-scientific brotherhood, and is able to hear their thoughts. He can also, it is soon discovered, use the power of his mind to create vortices of whatever matter is available. Thus a whirling disc of dust can be used as a weapon to cut wood or slice a man’s throat.
The Brotherhood have not taught Jeremy this out of the kindness of their hearts. There is a prophecy that says that a man with a Wolf’s Head will go amongst the people who live underground and destroy the Gods Eye. The descendants of the US President’s emergency bunker have remained underground and learned to live in darkness. Rather like Wells’ Morlocks they have evolved pallid white skin and large eyes. It is they who have kidnapped Beatra in order to discover information about the people of the surface.
In order for Jeremy to see underground, the brothers have grafted part of his brain into the brain of the she dire wolf, Virgil, a creature whose species mutated due to the radiation and evolved infra-red vision.
And so, Jeremy sets off to the underground city of the President to destroy the Gods Eye and rescue his wife.
It lacks the verve and creative flourishes of Harness’s early work and invites comparison with similar novels such as Pangborn’s ‘Davy’, Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ and the brilliant ‘Riddley Walker’. These other books are richer in ideas and characterisation. There is little of the detailed and colourful societies of ‘the Ring of Ritornel’ and ‘the Paradox men’ or indeed, the complex plots and structure.
Comparisons also have to be drawn with Star Wars which premiered a couple of years before this book came out and which exhibits certain plot parallels.
Jeremy (like Luke Skywalker) is an orphan who meets a mentor in the form of a robed man (Father Arcrite) and is taught how to employ his mind powers before being sent off to face the President (Emperor) and rescue the princess (Beatra).
This book has a Gods Eye, Star wars has a Death Star. Jeremy’s father is also revealed to be still alive, while Jeremy thought he was dead.
Whether or not Harness was influenced by these films is not clear. It’s unlikely he can have been unaware of them, although it also has to be pointed out that by the time ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, this book may have already been in print.
Another theory may be that Harness (presumably like George Lucas) was merely following the Campbell structure of narrative, of which films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are perfect examples. The hero is taken out of his/her environment and sent on a quest, facing challenges on the way, meeting allies and mentors, until eventually they must face the great enemy, be it Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West or (in this case) the US President.
The hero then returns, having gained the prize, but more importantly, wisdom.
Harness has some interesting points to make about how some species have evolved to fit particular niches. The Dire Wolf, for instance, as has been said, has developed infra-red vision, while crocodiles and humans have adapted themselves to life underground.
Hallmarks of Harness’ work are the prophecy, and the final twist which didn’t come as a great surprise since most astute readers would have worked out that Jeremy’s father was the returner, sent back by the Undergrounders, although maybe not that he is also father Phaedrus.
It’s also a relief that that Harness did not opt for a sentimental ending, which is again typical of his work. One gets the impression that life is moving on, rather than being halted by the emotional full stop of a happy ending.
‘Davy is set in the far future if our world, in the fourth century after the collapse of what we describe as twentieth-century civilisation. In a land turned upside-down and backwards by the results of scientific unwisdom, Davy and his fellow Ramblers are carefree outcasts, whose bawdy, joyous adventures among the dead ashes of Old-Time culture make a novel which has been hailed as “a frightening, ribald, poignant look at an imaginary future,” as “this chilling and fascinating book,” as “superb entertainment… unique,” as “so unusual as to make it both refreshing and thought-provoking.”’
Blurb from the 1976 Star Books paperback edition.
Several hundred years after nuclear war, Davy begins to write the story of his life.
After accidentally killing one of the guards in the village compound in which he grew up, Davy flees, narrowly avoiding getting involved in a territorial war, and joins up with various travellers – including a mutant, a man who claims to be his father, a travelling carnivale and finally some seafaring wanderers with whom he finally settles on an island in the Azores.
Initially illiterate, Davy is taught to read and write by an old lady in the travelling circus, and thus defies the controlling Church’s prohibition on reading texts from before the Apocalypse.
In some ways this is a nostalgic look at an America in pioneering times, since society has regressed to that level, and confines itself to an area between Philadelphia and the Catskill mountains. The leader of the group that Davy joins makes some of his living by selling a universal panacea, ‘Mother Spinkton’s Home Remedy’, which is claimed to cure more or less everything.
The Church is portrayed as a restrictive and anachronistic force and there are signs that its power and influence are in decline.
Although not as powerful and original as ‘A Mirror For Observers’ this is a thoughtful and idiosyncratic work, very redolent of Simak in its yearning for a pastoral America, but at the same time critical of religious political control.
Overall it is a compelling portrait of a teenager’s passage into adulthood and his changing attitude as he learns and experiences conceptual breakthroughs.
It is to be noted that the human mutations in this work are simply that. Refreshingly the ‘Mues’ that are encountered show no signs of fantastic powers but are merely severely brain-damaged and/or physically deformed.
It is perhaps too romantic a vision of a post-nuclear world, but then, the novel is not about that. It is about characters and their lives, all of which are beautifully portrayed.
‘War had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn’t ‘retiring’ them, he dreamed of owning the ultimate status symbol – a live animal. Then Rick got his big assignment: to kill six Nexus-6 targets for a huge reward. But things were never that simple, and Rick’s life quickly turned into a nightmare kaleidoscope of subterfuge and deceit.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Masterworks paperback edition
From the first page when Dick introduces us to Rick Deckard and his wife, debating what moods to set for themselves on their Penfield mood organs, we are thrown into a world where what is real and what is fake is clearly a matter of one’s own perception. Perhaps of all Dick’s novels, this is the one where his examination of the concept of ‘the fake’ works on so many levels that the meaning of the phrase itself becomes hazy.
This is a depopulated and poisoned Earth, most of Humanity having emigrated to other planets, leaving a world of empty apartment-blocks and radiation damaged humans. Animals, having suffered the brunt of the radiation which has blighted the ecosphere, are a rarity, which makes a live animal of any sort a highly desired status symbol. Consequently, businesses have sprung up which manufacture life-like electric animals such as Deckard’s sheep, the electric sheep of the title.
Deckard is a bounty hunter, part of a team which hunt down androids, originally created as ‘slaves’ to work on pioneer planets, some of which escape and, for reasons which are not entirely clear, return to Earth to live freely, posing as humans.
The androids are the product of the Rosen association, whose work has developed to such a degree that their latest development, the Nexus-6 model, although synthetic, is virtually indistinguishable from humans, and can only be detected by psychological testing of their empathic reactions.
When Deckard’s boss is injured by one of a group of six Nexus-6 androids who have killed their owners and escaped to Earth, Deckard is giving the job of hunting down and ‘retiring’ them.
This is not a novel, however, which is as simplistic as the synopsis would suggest. Dick is using the medium to explore – as is often the case – the themes and concepts which fascinate him.
Many of the characters, for instance, are concerned with their own states of mind and their place in society. Rick’s wife, one of Dick’s trademark harpies, is seen at the start of the novel setting her Penfield Mood organ, a device which allows one to dial states of mind at will. Although used as a comic device initially, the point being made is a serious one. The Mood Organ is a metaphor for drugs, a device which allows one to experience whatever mood one chooses, and if one doesn’t have the desire to choose a mood, there is an option to dial 3 which produces a compulsive desire to dial a mood at random.
There is also a spooky foreshadowing of consumer gullibility of TV via the Buster Friendly show. Buster Friendly is a TV host who somehow manages to be live on air twenty four hours a day and also simultaneously produce a separate and quite different radio show. Most of the viewing public don’t question this, although it is obvious to the reader that Buster must be an android himself, something that is pointed out to JR Isidore later in the novel. This is something that comes as a shock to JR and – even given his chickenhead status within the novel – has disturbing parallels with contemporary society’s slightly hallowed view of TV celebrities and the media.
In terms of the novel, it is merely another fake which forces the reader – if not the characters involved – to question the reality of the world in which they have become immersed.
The novel has of course been overshadowed by its cinematic adaptation, ‘Bladerunner’. Although an excellent movie in its own right it employs the shell of the ‘DADOES’ narrative, abandoning some of the weirder aspects of the novel in favour of a Gibsonesque cyberpunk superficiality. Its success has to a certain extent served to turn ‘DADOES’ into the book of the film, which it most certainly is not.
Certainly it is in the top ranking of Dick novels, but those who come to it as a new read need to divorce themselves from comparisons with the movie and see Dick’s vision fresh and weird in a world in some way very like ours, but at the same time unsettlingly strange and filled with doubts with regard to various perceptions of reality.
Posthumous sequels are not something to be lightly undertaken. Though it has to be said that literature tends to fair better in this respect than the film industry, which is always keen to plunder its past for a remake or a sequel, sometimes wisely and intelligently, but more often than not, disastrously and foolishly. For the most part literary sequels have been rarer forays but few reach the level of quality of the original, which, if it was planned as a stand-alone novel, should in most cases remain as such.
Baxter’s ‘The Time Ships’ (a sequel to HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine) is a rare instance of a novelist’s dedication to the style and spirit of its provenance. So, in its own way, is ‘Night of The Triffids’
The novel, as an homage within an homage, begins as the original does with the disorientation of both the reader and the narrator as they awake and try to work out why their world has changed.
Twenty-nine years on from John Wyndham’s ‘Day of The Triffids’, the original narrator’s son David takes up the tale. Those unfamiliar with ‘Day of…’ (shame on you!) will be neatly brought up to date by his reminiscences in which he explains the social structure of the island and gives an overview of post-apocalyptic life among the Triffids, which the population now harvest to provide the raw materials of daily existence.
Like Baxter, Clark is true to the spirit of the original – managing to capture Wyndham’s style – and cleverly creates a society which, because of the lack of scientific and social development, has changed little from Wyndham’s England of the Nineteen Fifties.
The nature of the Triffids themselves is examined in more detail based on hints given by Wyndham in ‘Day of..’ which suggest that the walking carnivorous plants might be more intelligent than most people suspect. Forced into an evolutionary leap by a world-wide darkness which descends upon the Earth, the creatures show new mutational changes, although these, which I’ll come to later, seem far too rapid given the timescale of only a few weeks.
Due to a combination of unfortunate events David is taken to New York which is being ruthlessly controlled as an apartheid slave society where blind and black people are excluded from ‘whites only’ areas.
In a sense this can be seen as a continuation of social values which were acceptable, if not widespread, in Nineteen Fifties America, and may indeed be prevalent in today’s USA in many areas.
Like ‘Day of…’ this novel is told in fast-paced first-person narrative, peppered with end-of-chapter cliffhangers which compels the reader to continue.
My criticisms are few. The Triffids themselves are lessened by new and improbable mutant forms. An aquatic species emerges in the USA where, ironically, all the Triffids are bigger and nastier than their European counterparts. This might have been expected in warmer parts of the US (The original talks of ten-foot specimens found growing in Africa) but not in the more temperate New York. Some sixty-foot specimens appear near the end of the novel which stretches credulity to breaking point for me, given that at least three independent communities have been studying the Triffids for the last thirty years and have presumably seen no major changes in the creatures’ physiology.
At one point, it was discovered that the plants had possibly created a small floating island of matted vegetation upon which they travelled from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. This device worked because it merely suggested intelligence on the part of the plants without endowing them with new powers and drastically altered forms.
Also, Clark puts a new and interesting spin on the nature of Triffid senses, suggesting that the tapping noise they make is both a form of communication and a sonar device which allows them to ‘see’ their prey in the way a dolphin ‘sees’ fish.
However, the author does not take the opportunity to explore the impact Triffids would have had on various eco-systems. Supposedly, all large mammals would have been virtually exterminated, along with birds. This would have had a knock-on effect on lower forms of life resulting in a readjustment of the balance of each eco-system.
Also, it would be likely that, like humans, instances of immune dogs, cats etc. could have survived and regressed to feral forms, with lower forms evolving to evade Triffids in various ways. One would have expected some kind of climatic change with the loss of humanity’s mechanised fuel-driven civilisation and the re-encroachment of vegetation in large areas around the world.
The ending, although exciting, seems somewhat rushed and contrived, but this didn’t mar what I found to be an un-put-downable thriller, which hopefully will bring many new readers to the original novel to find out where it all started.
“They fought with worlds as their weapons
THREE AGAINST INFINITY. The Empire of Toromon had finally declared war. The attacks on its planes had been nothing compared to the final insult – the kidnapping of the Crown Prince. The enemy must be dealt with, and when they were, Toromon would be able to get back on its economic feet. But how would the members of this civilization – one of the very few who had survived the great fire – get beyond the deadly radiation barrier, behind which the enemy lay? And assuming they got beyond the barrier, how would they deal with that enemy – the Lord of the Flames – whose very presence was unknown to the people among whom he lived.
SAMUEL R. DELANY considers Captives of the Flame to be the first of a trilogy dealing with the same epoch and characters. It is, however, his second published novel, his first being The Jewels of Aptor, Ace Book F-173, which has received considerable acclaim.
A young man, resident in New York City, Delany is a prolific and talented writer, whose work in poetry and prose have won him many awards. Asked for comment on his literary ambitions, he preferred to quote one of the characters from one of his works:
“I wanted to wield together a prose luminous as twenty sets of headlights flung down a night road; I wanted my words tinged with the green of mercury vapor street lamps seen through a shaling of oak leaves in the park past midnight. I needed phrases that would break open like thunder, or leave a brush as gentle as willow boughs passed in a dark room…. The finest writing is always the finest delineation of surfaces.”
Blurbs and bio from the 1963 F-199 paperback edition
The original trilogy – as published by Ace – was set in the same universe as ‘The Jewels of Aptor’ but was later revised for republication. This is a review of the original publication.
On a post apocalyptic Earth, in a feudal realm, several characters’ fates are entwined.
The realm is bounded by the sea and borders of deadly radiation.
There is Jon who, imprisoned for a minor infraction against the palace, has escaped. Tel is a young refugee from an abusive family who is employed in a complex plot to kidnap the young Prince, Let. Alter is another of the kidnappers who teaches Tel and Let some of her acrobatic tricks. We also have the soldier Tomar, Jon’s sister Clea, the Duchess Petra and Arkor (one of the mutant humans who have become the Forest Guardians).
The ultimate aim of the kidnapping is to have the young prince taken away from the restrictive life of The Palace and trained by the Forest Guardians in the hope that such training will make him a decent king.
Meanwhile the government is preparing to wage war on the land beyond the radiation barrier, an enemy unseen and unknown.
Three of the protagonists, however, are possessed by the minds of extra-terrestrial beings and only together can they resist the true enemy beyond the barrier, the Lord of The Flames.
There is a Dickensian quality to this in which the lives of the pampered rich are contrasted with the lives of the poor. It’s a very romanticised tale, however, avoiding some of the horrors of stark poverty and homelessness.
Although it is not complete Science Fantasy, there are Fantasy conventions creeping in, such as the Feudalistic society, the evil Queen Mother and the concept of Royalty itself with all its trappings.
Where it succeeds is in the characterisations which, sometimes slightly stylised and caricatured, manage to raise the tale to a higher level.
The sequel is ‘The Towers of Toron‘
A rare and early foray into the subject of Time Travel from Dick, although the timeslip element is used initially merely as a device to move an objective viewpoint to a far future and therefore alien society.
Although one of the novels in which Dick was still finding his literary feet, it shows signs of the depths of his ideas and the themes which would come to dominate his work.
Dr Jim Parsons is snatched from the US of Nineteen Ninety Eight and deposited in the year Two Thousand, Four Hundred and Five. Interestingly, the US that Dick envisaged in his own near future is one in which large corporations have been nationalised and society seems to be run by the professional classes (Doctors, lawyers, etc.). American politics and society is often something at which Dick takes a sideswipe, often as part of the background to the main narrative.
Parsons arrives in a post-nuclear world where the human race has become homogenised and the birth rate is strictly controlled (as is female rights).
Children are produced by a process of controlled natural selection whereby competitive ‘tribes’ engage in various mental and physical challenges; the number of points they win determining who contributes their zygotes to ‘The Soul Cube’, which is essentially a vast bank of reproductive material.
Death is welcomed, as when a tribe member dies, a replacement is automatically fertilised within the cube.
Being a Doctor, and somewhat politically liberal, Parsons is confused and appalled when he is arrested for saving the life of a young woman who subsequently makes a complaint against him for denying her the right to die.
Structurally, the novel follows the mythic structure in that the hero – unwillingly in this case – is taken from his world of familiarity and his happy marriage (unusually for Dick, whose heroes tend to suffer from broken or dysfunctional relationships) to an alien world of seemingly bizarre behaviour and barbaric cultural beliefs.
Dick was once quoted as having been influenced by AE Van Vogt, and if it shows anywhere, it shows in this novel which, if a little less obscure and rambling than some of Van Vogt’s work, displays some of his trademarks such as ‘the dark city of spires’, the super race, the peculiar machines, the convoluted plot and the trip to Mars. These are Van Vogt clichés which can be seen at their best in Slan (1940) and ‘The World of Null-A’ (1948).
It’s obviously hastily written, although the time-travel loops and paradoxes are well-thought out and all the ends neatly tied up, although Dick skimps on some areas where the motives of the characters are confusing. For instance, believing himself to have murdered someone by utilising time-travel equipment Parsons goes out of his way to try and ensure that he has actually done so. At that point, however, he has no motive for carrying out the murder, and has been shown earlier to be – he is a Doctor after all – someone who is dedicated to preserving life.